Battle for Bakhmut: Will Ukraine triumph or fall to Russian forces?

Ukranian President Zelenskyy has vowed not to give up on the eastern city of Bakhmut despite a six-month-long siege by Russia. The strenuous defense of the city has a symbolic value for Ukraine’s resilience in the ongoing fight against Russia’s aggression.

Mstyslav Chernov/AP
A Ukrainian soldier sought refuge in a trench while Russian shelling persisted on the frontlines near Bakhmut in the Donetsk region of Ukraine on March 5th, 2023. Ukraine's defense of Bakhmut has been an effective drain on the Russian war effort.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy vowed on Monday not to retreat from Bakhmut as Russian forces encroached on the devastated eastern city they have sought to capture for six months at the cost of thousands of lives.

Less than a week ago, an adviser to Mr. Zelenskyy said the defenders might give up on Bakhmut and fall back to nearby positions.

But Mr. Zelenskyy on Monday chaired a meeting in which top military brass “spoke in favor of continuing the defense operation and further strengthening our positions in Bakhmut.” Later in his nightly video address, the president reported that his advisers unanimously agreed to press on with the fight, “not to retreat” and to bolster Ukrainian defenses.

His top adviser, Mykhailo Podolyak, told The Associated Press that Ukrainian forces around Bakhmut have been grinding down enemy forces, reinforcing their positions, and training tens of thousands of Ukrainian military personnel for a possible counteroffensive.

Intense Russian shelling targeted the city in the Donetsk region and nearby villages as Moscow waged a three-sided assault to try to finish off Bakhmut’s resistance.

The nearby towns of Chasiv Yar and Kostiantynivka came under heavy shelling, damaging cars and homes and sparking a fire. No casualties were immediately reported.

Police and volunteers evacuated people from Chasiv Yar and other front-line towns in an operation made difficult by the loss of bridges and constant artillery fire that has left barely a house standing.

Russian forces have been unable to deliver a knockout blow that would allow them to seize Bakhmut. Analysts say the city does not hold major strategic value and that its capture would be unlikely to serve as a turning point in the conflict.

The Russian push for Bakhmut reflects the Kremlin’s broader struggle to achieve battlefield momentum. Moscow’s full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, 2022, soon stalled, and Ukraine launched a largely successful counteroffensive. Over the bitterly cold winter months, the fighting has largely been deadlocked.

The city’s importance has become mostly symbolic. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, prevailing there would finally deliver some good news from the front. For Kyiv, the display of grit and defiance underscores the message that Ukraine is holding on after a year of brutal attacks, justifying continued support from its Western allies.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin endorsed that view Monday, saying during a visit to Jordan that Bakhmut has “more of a symbolic value than … strategic and operational value.”

Moscow, he added, continues “to pour in a lot of ill-trained and ill-equipped troops” into Bakhmut, while Ukraine patiently builds “combat power” elsewhere with Western military support ahead of a possible spring offensive.

Even so, some analysts question the wisdom of ordering Ukrainian defenders to hold out much longer. Others suggest that a tactical withdrawal may already be underway.

Michael Kofman, the director of Russia studies at the CAN think tank in Arlington, Virginia, said Ukraine’s defense of Bakhmut has been effective because it has drained the Russian war effort, but that Kyiv should now look ahead.

“The tenacious defense of Bakhmut achieved a great deal, expending Russian manpower and ammunition,” Mr. Kofman tweeted late Sunday. “But strategies can reach points of diminishing returns, and given Ukraine is trying to husband resources for an offensive, it could impede the success of a more important operation.”

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said Kyiv’s smartest option now may be to withdraw to positions that are easier to defend.

“Ukrainian forces are unlikely to withdraw from Bakhmut all at once and may pursue a gradual fighting withdrawal to exhaust Russian forces through continued urban warfare,” the ISW said in an assessment published late Sunday.

The Bakhmut battle has exposed Russian military shortcomings and bitter divisions.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the millionaire owner of the Wagner Group military company that has spearheaded the Bakhmut offensive, has been at loggerheads with the Russian Defense Ministry and repeatedly accused it of failing to provide his forces with ammunition.

On Monday, Mr. Prigozhin warned in a Russian social media post that the situation in Bakhmut “will turn out to be a ‘pie’: The filling is the parts of the Armed Forces of Ukraine surrounded by us (in the case, of course, if there is a complete encirclement of Bakhmut), and the shell is, in fact, the Wagner Group.”

Bakhmut has taken on almost mythic importance. It has become like Mariupol –  the port city in the same province that Russia captured last year after an 82-day siege that eventually came down to a mammoth steel mill where determined Ukrainian fighters held out along with civilians.

Moscow looked to cement its rule in Mariupol. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu toured some of the city’s rebuilt infrastructure – a newly built hospital, a rescue center, and residential buildings – the Defense Ministry said.

In other developments Monday:

•Russian forces attacked central and eastern regions of Ukraine with Iranian-made Shahed drones, said a spokesman for Ukraine’s Air Forces, Yurii Ihnat. Of 15 drones Russia launched, 13 were shot down, Mr. Ihnat said. It wasn’t immediately clear if the attack caused damage.

•Russian defenders shot down three missiles over Russia’s Belgorod region on the border with Ukraine, its governor, Vyacheslav Gladkov, said on Telegram. Debris injured one person and damaged power lines and façades of residential buildings, according to the official. Mr. Gladkov did not specify whether the missiles were fired from Ukraine.

•Ukraine’s chief prosecutor announced a criminal investigation into what appeared to be Russian troops’ execution of an unarmed Ukrainian prisoner of war. 

•Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, reported thwarting an attempt to assassinate nationalist businessman Konstantin Malofeyev that was allegedly plotted by Ukrainian security services and the Russian Volunteer Corps that claims to be part of Ukraine’s armed forces. According to the FSB, the Russian Volunteer Corps leader Denis Kapustin was the mastermind behind the plan, which was to put a bomb under Mr. Malofeyev’s car.

Mr. Malofeyev is a media baron and owner of the ultra-conservative Tsargrad TV who has supported Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine and has trumpeted Moscow’s invasion as a “holy war.” He has been sanctioned by the U.S. and last year was charged with trying to evade sanctions.

The Russian Volunteer Corps last week claimed responsibility for an attack on Russian villages on the border with Ukraine. The FSB said Monday that Mr. Kapustin organized and spearheaded the raid, which killed two civilians and wounded two others. The FSB’s allegations could not be independently verified. Ukrainian officials have not commented.

This story was reported by The Associated Press

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